Some mid-1980s takes on the home computer craze for kids that are good, bad, and sometimes a just a *little* ugly!
CAPTAIN ELECTRON #1
Brick Computer Science Institute, 1986
Written & Illustrated by Jayson Disbrow
I recently purchased a whole bunch of 1980s indie comics, and my favorite of the bunch was without a doubt an obscure gem called Captain Electron. Produced in 1986 by the Brick Computer Science Institute of Bricktown, New Jersey, the publication is ostensibly a promotional item for the school. But it’s also a legit 32-page full color comic book written and illustrated by notable Golden Age artist (and Brick Computer Science Institute Public Relations Director) Jay Disbrow.
“Set in the fascinating world of COMPUTER SCIENCE,” Captain Electron opens with an illustrated history of various computers such as the ENIAC, the EDSAC, the UNIVAC, and the first IBM data processing machines. Then it launches into a story about the evil Dr. Manfred Zongor, who kidnaps the head of the Brick Computer Science Institute, Edward Zapp, to carry out an evil computer-related scheme.
Zongor is not a historical personage, but apparently Ed Zapp was the actual president of Brick Computer Science Institute. Go figure.
Mysterious superhero Captain Electron, described in the comic’s forward as “an ordinary man who has been energized by the miracles of science,” is on the case to rescue Zapp and stop Zongor. With a blue outfit, red cape, and blue-black spitcurl hairdo, Electron sort of resembles another certain flying hero…but as the forward clearly indicates, “he is not a superman” (small s).
In-between all this we learn more about computer technology, as well as have a full-size plane slam into the Chrysler Building. Zongor doesn’t seem to be behind the plane crash (which leaves unsettling 9/11-esque office carnage), it just…happens. As an incidental event, perhaps, to showcase the full extent of Captain Electron’s mysterious electrically-based powers.
It’s obvious Disbrow, who was also a government technical illustrator for many years, enjoyed creating this comic book & teaching kids about technology. The art is consistent and eye-poppingly colored; my only sort of partial critique is that the entire thing looks like it stepped out of the 1940s. So if you’re looking for that kicky Eighties tech vibe, look elsewhere; this is strictly Golden Age.
Oh yes, and there is of course our host…”Mr. Computer”:
Several years ago I was hired to write a different promotional book to get kids excited by computer science, and it had not one but several characters (I didn’t create them) similar to Mr. Computer. So I **get it**, OK? I think it’s cute. And this is most probably why I feel such a fondness for Captain Electron.
SUPERMAN III: OFFICIAL MOVIE ADAPTATION
DC COMICS, 1983
Written By Cary Bates
Illustrated by Curt Swan and Sal Amendola
A computer instruction school is also the pivotal locale for the 1983 adaptation of the movie Superman III. Movies like this second “Superman” sequel, Tron, and WarGames all capitalized on the burgeoning mainstream computer market. As the first issue of the short-lived Children’s Workshop magazine Enter asked on its cover, “Can Computers Really Go Crazy?”
Along those lines, supposedly Superman III co-star Richard Pryor was originally slated to play classic villain Brainiac; though here, he instead becomes mostly a comic relief computer savant who hacks into various satellites and databases. The real villain is the Lex Luthor-like corporate magnate Ross Webster, played by Robert Vaughn (but of course this is a rushed-out DC movie adaptation, so he only looks like Vaughn for like one panel).
It is tempting for me to get into the meat of Superman III the movie in this post, as I’ve only watched it in excess of 20 times. But no: something of such Earth-shattering insight will have to wait another day.
Instead, I will largely gauge this comic book, written by Comics Legend Cary Bates and illustrated by Comics Legend Curt Swan, on its own merits. Both Bates & Swan are very talented & have created some iconic stuff; but unsurprisingly, this movie adaptation is serviceable at best. This was the case for a lot of comic book film adaptations of the time and still is, to a degree. Every once in a while you get some screwball gems like Heavy Metal’s 1941, or even the fine work Kyle Baker did on the Howard The Duck adaptation.
But mostly…these “comic books of the movie” are kind of blah. Certainly in the 70’s & 80’s, before affordable home video, it was a novelty to “own” the movie albeit as a comic. I would have loved the heck out of this Superman III comic book as a kid (I did take out the novelization from the library), ignoring what a awkward job Swan did with Gus Gorman (I get that maybe they weren’t allowed to use the Pryor likeness, but still…).
Plus: we get this nice shot of Webster’s evil sister getting taken over by the super-computer in the end:
So, you know…that’s another piece of my childhood immortalized in the graphic medium.
Lastly, reading such comics as this and Captain Electron, when mass-market computers were relatively young, makes me feel OLD OLD OLD. Will super-computers like the one at the end of Superman III eventually take over the planet? As the Enter article reassures, it is probably not very likely: “A computer is not equipped, as people are, to make the tremendous mental jump from rigidly following orders to deciding what to do by itself.”
Though, of course, with massive advances in AI & machine learning…they sort of are deciding now what to do by itself. (And my iPhone is a bajillion times more powerful than the Commodore 64 I had in the mid-1980s)
I’ll close this post with another snippet of the Enter article, this time from an interview with Superman III screenwriters Leslie and David Newman. When asked if they did any technical research to write the film, David answered that neither him nor his wife knew anything about computers & the producers discouraged them to even try. Which, when you think of it…actually makes Captain Electron the superior Eighties computer tale.
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